Review: Double Feature, part one – “A Travesty”

Cover of Double Feature by Donald Westlake

Note: This is the first of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

What is the most Westlakeian of all of Donald Westlake’s works? Something that really captures the whole of him?

That’s probably impossible to answer, but let me submit “A Travesty” for your consideration.

“A Travesty” begins moments after the accidental murder of one Laura Penney by film critic Carey Thorpe, our narrator and her part-time lover. Thorpe’s imagining of how the conversation with the police would go, if he were to allow such a conversation to happen, tells you much about the kind of guy Thorpe is:

“And you say you hit her?”

“Well, not that hard. She slipped on the floor, that’s all, and smacked her head on the coffee table.”

“As a result of you hitting her.”

“As a result of her polishing the goddam floor all the goddam time.”

Laura’s clean jagged style had, as a matter of fact, killed her more than anything else. What kind of bachelor girl apartment was this, with its hulking glass coffee table and chrome lamps and white vinyl chairs and bare black floor?

Thorpe goes about clearing the apartment of evidence of his presence there without an iota of guilt. Nothing to be done about poor Laura now, after all.

In a first chapter that could have been a standalone short story, Thorpe encounters the first hiccup in his plan to suffer no consequences. A private detective has been keeping tabs on Laura at the behest of her husband, and has put the pieces together. But he’s not an unreasonable man…

Without giving too much away, we go from here to Thorpe absurdly (but it doesn’t feel absurd) solving the murders of others with the police assigned to the Penney case while attempting to make certain they don’t solve the Penney murder, and ending up, fittingly enough for a film critic, in a variety of situations that could only happen in the movies.

So what makes “A Travesty” such pure, undiluted Westlake? We have a protagonist with nothing to recommend him as a human being–Thorpe is reprehensible on every moral level–and yet, darned if I didn’t find myself to some extent rooting for him to get away with it (“it” eventually becoming much more than just the Penney murder, of course). It casts a satirical eye on society in the form of a cast of eminently mockable shallow New Yorkers who may not be murderers but most of whom don’t seem to care much more than Thorpe does about their fellow human beings. It’s got one clever turn after another, leading to a completely satisfying conclusion to a story where that seemed impossible just pages before. And it’s both dark and funny as hell.

So, while depending on tastes, I might recommend The Hunter or The Hot Rock to someone looking for an introduction to Donald Westlake, I also might very well recommend “A Travesty.” If there’s another work that captures the totality of DEW at his best, I can’t think of what it is. This Travesty is a triumph.

Trivia: “A Travesty” mentions A Sound of Distant Drums. This is a title used in several Westlake and Lawrence Block works (and some by others), usually as a fictional film. In “A Travesty,” it’s an upcoming release by murder victim and director Jim Wicker:

“New movie?” I tried to remember what I’d read in the trades recently about Jim Wicker. “Oh, that would be A Sound of Distant Drums, for Lanisch-Sanssky.”

Posts in this series

Cover of Enough by Donald Westlake